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Pedagogy 6.2 (2006) 209-230
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Books as Broccoli? Images as Ice Cream?
Providing a Healthy Menu in a College English Classroom
Critical discussion concerning the merits of electronic media in college English classrooms defines the screen that is about to overtake the page as the primary medium for learning in the West, either cinematically or technologically. That is, the value of books (and the aptitudes for reading and writing necessary to comprehend them) is measured either against a pop-cultural spectrum of superficial distractions (or vibrant politico-cultural signifiers) for which the movie screen stands synecdochically for film, television, billboards, magazines, advertising, and popular music or against the computer screen—a burgeoning field of technological proficiencies and microelectronics poised to transform the world (let alone the study of English). Ordinary Web surfing may represent little more than one of those superficial distractions (or vibrant cultural contexts) signified by the movie screen, yet the many properties shared by these page-threatening, curriculum-altering screens is rarely remarked upon by contemporary scholars, who tend to address issues related either to pop culture or to computer technology, not both. In addition, this writing is meant to stand apart from the wealth of related arguments marketed for mass consumption in recent years1 by focusing not on children (and their early exposure to these media) or adults (and the value of a lifelong attachment to books) but on the specific instance of the college literature classroom. While I consider those most affected in this scenario (the students themselves), I am equally interested to implicate (and discuss the implications [End Page 209] for) college teachers who embrace electronic media in their teaching of literary studies.
I acknowledge the important differences between the screens considered here: just as one can run a movie from a computer screen but cannot surf the Web at the local multiplex, so a fundamental distinction between film and computer technology relates to their narrower and broader functions, respectively. For our students, filmgoing is "pure" entertainment, while computer use may offer similar routes of escape or turn treacherously against them—adding to or complicating their class requirements in unpalatable ways. Although students and teachers tend to agree that the electronic classroom "makes learning fun," neither group seems to notice how online requirements (discussion groups, blogs, peer editing, Web design) increase time spent at the keyboard by perhaps several hours per week, usually with no officially sanctioned release from time spent in class or completing more traditional homework assignments in compensation. The imbalance is corrected only in the online classroom—students coming to class to sit at a computer and do their work or staying home to take the modern correspondence course—pedagogical methods about which many teachers in humanities remain dubious. Of course both teachers and students are adversely affected by the lackluster research and temptations to plagiarize engendered by the Internet environment, and I take issue with even the make-learning-fun rationale: what kind of "fun" is learning supposed to provide after all, and why is this nowadays unobtainable without the aid of electronic prosthetics?
Yet "reading" film or television in class may strike even technophobic humanities instructors as akin to the aims and approaches of literary study. As texts themselves, film and television respond to the analytic methods an instructor already uses—in teaching and research—and are often more comfortably approached than are the intricacies of technological design and use that are truly outside her discipline. While this knowledge gap will diminish as younger teachers replace older ones, and as teachers of all ages acclimate to the electronic environment, at the moment the film screen may be more readily or more frequently welcomed in the college English classroom than the computer screen, despite (or because of) its narrower cultural role. As a matter for critical discourse, related issues emerge: which screen poses the larger threat (or more promising alternative) to the dying culture of print literacy? Which one harms (or merely changes) student attitudes and behaviors more permanently and which...